Level Up: How To Tell Compelling Stories

What is the key to great storytelling in journalism? What is the importance of compelling characters in news stories? Expert journalists from NBC News, Telemundo, NBC News NOW and NBCU Local share their best advice.  

What is storytelling?

Lester Holt, “NBC Nightly News” anchor: Storytelling is when you take time to take people on a journey, as if you were sitting with them, telling the story. The key is to make our words bring the story to life. It’s our most effective tool as journalists. 

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Harry Smith, NBC News correspondent: The fundamental question in storytelling is: What is this about? What am I trying to say? Do your best to help the audience understand what you’re trying to communicate.    

Antonia Hylton, NBC News correspondent and “Southlake” and “Grapevine” podcast co-host: When you’re thinking about a story, you should be thinking about what platform, what medium to tell it in. Take notes about what draws you in and makes you love a good story.   

David Ushery, NBC New York anchor: When you’re assigned a story or pitch a story, go through a mental checklist even before you go out the door. What do I need to tell this story? What do I need visually? What do I need editorially?   

A diversity of reaction and thought is important, not just to check off boxes, but to better reflect the audience and viewers. And it enlightens the audience and viewers. 

Sheinelle Jones, 3rd Hour of “TODAY” co-host: The power of listening is at the top of the list when it comes to being a good journalist. If you’re out and you see something happening, there could be a story there. If you’re having a conversation with your cousin or your uncle, there could be a story there. 

Miriam Arias, Noticias Telemundo correspondent: Less is always more. Give them a peek at the story, then little by little you share more with them.

Finding characters

Harry Smith, NBC News correspondent: For a feature story, two things are really important: picture and character. If I don’t have a strong character, I will choose to find another story.

Karen Hua, NBC10 Philadelphia reporter: Stories are about people and emotions, not facts and things. Talk about the mood or emotion of your characters, rather than rattle off some facts or data that you can incorporate later on in your package. You want to lead with what grabs your viewers, what they’ll relate to right off the top. 

Joe Fryer, “Morning News NOW” co-anchor: Finding characters can sometimes be very easy or very hard. Look around, see who’s making the most people laugh, see who’s wearing the goofiest outfit and start talking with people. 

You constantly want to be revealing things and giving people surprises. The story is giving ups and downs, like a roller coaster, to keep your attention until the very end. You don’t put all your great moments and characters at the very beginning, because by the end it’s going to fall flat.    

Lauren Petty, NBC Chicago anchor and reporter: You want to listen to the interviews. You want to listen for the natural sound.

Craig Melvin, “TODAY” news anchor and 3rd hour co-host: Focus on a compelling character and use them to tell the story. Less of your own voice and more of his or her voice goes a long way in powerful storytelling. 

Example: Harry Smith Visits McSorley’s, NYC’s Oldest Irish Saloon

More tips from our experts
Great storytelling with Joe Fryer.
Mastering the interview with Harry Smith.
Interviewing with Craig Melvin.
Podcasting with Antonia Hylton.
• All NBCU Academy writing lessons.